posts 1 - 15 of 17
Boston, US
Posts: 288


Excerpt from Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, chapter 1 (pages 1-2) and chapter 7 (pages 55-70).

Reading Christopher Browning’s text on the Józefów massacre—a chapter of his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, one of the most brilliant and horrifying books ever written about the Nazi era--it is impossible not to wonder: what happened there? I don’t know about you, but I find his account and the reality of what happened there to be profoundly and deeply disturbing.

Here’s what I want you first to address in this post. Why did these men do what they did? Why did some men participate and some men choose not to? What were the real repercussions if you chose not to participate? Why didn’t more of the men do that? What seemed to be “going through their heads”? What do you make of Major Tripp’s views and actions? Why were these actions—these massacres by teams that served as “einsatzgruppen”—special killing squads—so problematic for the Nazis in the short-term and in the long term?

Then, consider this. At the end of the Second World War, a psychologist named Theodor Adorno argued that there was a "Fascist Personality Type" that was prone to genocide. According to Adorno, it made folks feel good to know that this behavior was "just the way Germans are."

Then, in 1961 Stanley Milgram did what became his classic experiment on obedience and taught us about the power of the situation and how ordinary people are willing to obey authority. We will be looking at this experiment next week.

Since Milgram did his research, we have learned a lot about obedience and the potential for people to change their behavior through the power of the situation. Philip Zimbardo did a classic study at Stanford University in which students took on the role of guards and prisoners - with rather frightening results. Other researchers, like Mike Fatouros studied how someone goes on to become a torturer by a systematic psychological process. Lastly, other theorists, like Irving Janis, argue that we go into something called "Groupthink" where we are unable to make rational decisions because of our loss of perspective of the greater world.

Browning, along with these psychologists, have helped us to understand the question of this rather dark side of human behavior. But as a student last year asked, in response to this article: So what? She felt that Browning's article, in trying to make us understand the origins of their behavior, was asking us to have some sympathy for the perpetrators in the unit.

So, here is that question. So what? What does it mean for us if the answer is that "the power of the situation was so strong that individuals lose the ability to make rational, humane decisions”? Does this in some way lessen the horrible nature of their crimes? Does it mean that the perpetrators are in some way less responsible?

In your response, be certain to make specific reference to what you saw with the Einsatzgruppen, from Browning, and from his findings in this chapter from his ground-breaking book. This is perhaps one of the most thought-provoking and essential readings and posts we will have all year.

Boston, MA
Posts: 27

  • The description that “the power of the situation” makes individuals lose their rational thinking skills reminded me about cults, and how “brainwashing” is commonly used to excuse cult members from crimes they committed in the name of a cult, like how the followers of Charles Manson claimed they were brainwashed into committing murder. This really isn’t true, and ignores the power of choice each person has. Although your views may be swayed after years of propaganda, humans are not robots, and you still ultimately have the choice to not do something.
  • I think in the case of the Einsatzgruppen, and the Reserve Police Officers, they still had the choice to make an objection to what they had to do, and stop. Even though societal pressure and pressure from Nazi propaganda may have encouraged them to commit these acts, they ultimately had the choice to say no, because they are still human beings capable of thought. “Groupthink” which we learned about earlier this year, no doubt exists, but it still does not excuse these actions, or strip decision making away from anyone. All these people we read about made the objective, aware decision to kill someone. Especially in Browning’s book, many of these men knew exactly what they were doing, and continued to do it. One thing I noticed was how Wilheim Trapp felt guilty about making the order, and shifted the blame to his higher ups, and continued to let other officers stop if they couldn’t do it. Instead of objecting, or not making the order, Trapp did it, knowing what he was forcing people under him to do, and shifting the blame away from himself. He is just one example of the many people who were aware of what they were doing, and knew that it was wrong, but instead other people commit these crimes, and sat by while they watched hundreds of people die.
  • Even though many of the Einsatzgruppen may have felt societal pressure to follow through with their orders, it doesn’t lessen their crimes, or the atrocities committed, or make them any less complicit in their crimes. Perpetrators are still perpetrators regardless of what was happening around them, and although things like groupthink may be somewhat of an explanation for what they did, it is not an excuse and does not remove them or excuse them from the acts they committed in any way.
Boston, Massachusetts , US
Posts: 17

The Psychology of the Holocaust

It is hard for me to accept the claims that the situation had them overwhelmed or overpowered to the point that they believed that they had no other options. Every person that was mentioned in the book has the ability to make a choice, that was made clear. Many still felt that they needed to follow the orders that they were given. Their ability to paint themselves as the victims in this situation is astounding to me. With how few of the members of the various Einsatzgruppen were charged it clearly worked. In Browning's book there is only one gorup that has very few or no choices iwth any choices available being bad; that group is the Jews. Every one of those Nazi policofficers and their superiors had choices. They chose to bring the children and elderly into the forest and they chose to shoot them. Simmilarly during Obedience the teacher had the choice to not shock the student. Instead of choosing that option he chose to continue. People say that words are more important than actions and this is one of the situations that exemplifys that. They said that they did not have a choice and so they killed people. That was taken at face value. There is no excuse for killing helpless people, especially not from an aetherial "power of the situation".

Boston, Massachusetts, US
Posts: 16

I think the excerpts from the book were astonishing, first of all. I hadn’t known about the killing squads before this class, and it was extremely eye opening. Being able to read the witness testimonies was incredibly jarring. The perspectives of the members of the Einsatzgruppen were also a little shocking to me. In most of the situations I have read/learned/watched about, it seems like the Nazis are eager to commit murder of Jewish people, no matter what. It continues to surprise me when I think about the fact that these murderers feel human emotions. It is difficult to fathom someone being able to do such horrible things to someone else right in front of them, but it has occurred, and I fear it will just continue to happen across time.During my readings, I learned that the members had the opportunity to leave their post many times. I do not understand how anyone could stay in that situation given the chance to leave. I don’t think I ever will truly comprehend it. How can someone continue to willingly commit murder over and over while given the ability to simply walk away. However, it is not that simple, as we saw through the psychological research experiment. It seems to be human nature to have to obey an order if it comes from a seemingly higher up official, which was clear in Obedience. Over and over, the teachers were told to continue to shock the student, and over again they obliged. While some protested, most kept on inflicting “pain” on the student. Though there were many motivating factors that influenced the results, it was still clear to see that people obeyed the doctors. It can be argued that this is what happened to the members of the death squads who murdered thousands of Jews flat out. However, I do not believe this excuses or absolves those who committed murder. Some took the path away from death and decided to abandon their position. These men were stronger, although still not innocent as they didn’t do enough to try and help in my opinion. Those who left were subject to some harassment from men like Captain Hoffman, as stated in Ordinary Men, but they were allowed to go. This proves that the rest who remained, no matter how traumatized or seemingly regretful they were, do not get the privilege of having less responsibility. One thing that really stuck with me while reading was the sheer gruesomeness of the book. I think this is a little childish of me, knowing that its literally the Holocaust, but to really have to read about the soldiers getting brain matter all over them and kind of picturing that is very impactful. In conclusion, I do not think simply saying that it is human nature or the situation was too difficult reduces the amount of responsibility of the Einsatzgruppen because although it was an incredibly intense situation, most of them still murdered thousands.
Boston, MA, US
Posts: 22

The men who chose to recuse themselves from participating in the Einsatzgruppen did so out of obvious disgust with what they were doing. Almost any person, except someone completely beyond the pale of any kind of human emotion, would be disgusted with committing such brutality. However, disgust is not the same as genuine moral outrage at the acts being done. None of the soldiers actually interfered with the massacre (except for Trapp, when he chose to stop the Aktion at Alekzandrow), they just removed their own culpability from the situation. Essentially the same number Jews still died at Jozefow, besides the few children or women that were mentioned to be spared (who it should also be emphasized were helped by the men committing the massacre, not the ones that chose to be reassigned). Nor was this a symbolic act of civil disobedience à la Muhammad Ali's rejection of the Vietnam draft, since the soldiers saw no consequences or public visibility for their actions. These people did nothing more extraordinary than those who simply did not enlist in the Einsatzgruppen, indeed, perhaps less so, as they objected not to the institution per se, but being faced with performing the inhuman brutality themselves.

While their individual actions might not be significant as acts of heroism, they are immensely important in understanding the reasons behind the methods of Nazi violence. When being faced with the gory horror that accompanies genocide, people balk, whether they be these policemen or Heinrich Himmler himself (as we saw in the BBC film in class). Only the most hardened soldiers, perhaps, would be able to do this with no remorse. While the concentration camps were a ripe ground for sadistic people who wanted to push the boundaries of the worst possible things to do to a human being, there would also be many people not able to handle it. At first, the Nazis relied on the same principle examined in the Milgram psychological experiment: that deference to authority would overrule people’s moral objections. While this might be true for many people, it leaves them uncomfortable: the man in the Milgram video was clearly upset at the situation he was put into, and the Einsatzgruppen soldiers who committed the atrocities out of deference to their officers surely felt some degree of discomfort, if not the abject horror appropriate to the situation.

This was not sustainable: the Nazis had to distance and sanitize the killings. The gas chambers were the ultimate way of distancing and hiding from view the reality of the murders being committed. With Jewish inmates often being forced to clean out the gas chambers (so we are told in Maus), it was possible for the Nazi executions to completely separate themselves from all the gruesome details of death. This is the same principle that allows people to drop nuclear bombs from a plane, or to buy products they know are made or harvested with slave labor. Allowing ourselves, all human beings, to hold the violence we commit at a distance makes it far too easy to absolve ourselves of any guilt or responsibility. The solution is, however uncomfortable it might be, to look it directly in the eye (one might say, to face our history, and ourselves.)

Boston, MA, US
Posts: 25

To be fair, there is no one reason why these men “did what they did.” There is no point in their brains we can zoom in on, no one trait they inherited that we can blame. We will likely never understand the psychology of the Holocaust in its full complexity, but we can at least theorize.

My theory as to why men, sometimes eagerly, sometimes apprehensively, agreed to commit mass murder is fear. This is hard to back up, however, since those who did not want to participate in the Jozefow massacre were time and time again permitted to take another assignment. Even Hergert, who first declared that there should not be an option to back out, reassigned any men who wanted to stop killing to a less gory position. If it was so easy, as described multiple times in chapter 7, why didn't more men take this opportunity? What I’ve learned from this reading, as well as from watching the Milgram experiment, is that to the human brain, orders are all-controlling. The police, as well as the generals, kept on saying that even though they knew how wrong, how disgusting, how sinful their acts were, they were only carrying out orders. They were even told to think of the German women and children back home which were suffering, according to the Nazis, in the same way the Jews would.

We also do not know what was going through the heads of the police, many of which were older, and had families of their own. It was, I think, some kind of mix of fear, blind need to please authority, and (like all Nazis) racism and patriotism. This combination, for some of the men, was just strong enough to overpower their inherent sense of morality. Even as one of the most atrocious scenes, perhaps in history, lay before them, they kept on shooting, finding spaces for the next bodies between others.

These men, however, were not completely blinded by authority, and were not completely ripped of human compassion. Coming “face to face” with a victim, and being ordered to shoot was not easy for seemingly any of the men. I kept hearing phrases about how their nerves were finished, which took a bit for me to understand, but I think I can define it better now. It is not necessarily that their emotions were exhausted, although this is a part of it. It is more that their moral (or weak side, as the generals may have called it), had begun to overtake their side that followed orders blindly. This didn't happen with every man, but there are plentiful examples of it in the text, like the police that throw up, drop out, or shoot into the air.

The strongest example of someone stuck in the division between morality and rule following is Trapp himself. At the end of the day, he still lead the Einsatzgruppen in the murder of thousands of innocent people. He still sat complacently as blood, guts, and brains were doused upon the forest floor; as human bodies were left to rot in piles without a burial. This was the side of him that carried out orders.

Nevertheless, there are arguably more examples of his moral side than obedient one. He could never watch the actual killings, and always stayed far away. More notably, however, he called off the Alekzandrow aktion. The text used an anecdote of him letting a 10 year old girl covered in blood live, which I think signifies pretty well that whenever permissible, he found a way to act with a moral compass. Just not enough. Trapp’s actions (when we look at them today), as well as those of other leaders and followers in Germany, were never strong enough acts of rebellion, since the Holocaust, and the rampage of the Einsatzgruppen still very much happened, nearly erasing an entire group of people on an incomprehensible scale.

Just because these men in theory had two sides: a moral one, and fearful blind order following one, does not mean that they should have their actions excused. It is true that sometimes, "The power of the situation was so strong that individuals lose the ability to make rational, humane decisions,” but they could have taken control of themselves. They could have tuned into their morals, which begged them to stop. In a way, their physical nausea when shooting Jews is the most clear way to see this. Reading the text made me very sick myself, and I think that that is one of the most obvious signs our own bodies give us, saying, “This just isn't right.” The Einsatzgruppen were given opportunities to go with their moral gut, but did not follow it enough, and they are, therefore, expected to take full responsibility for their actions.

Boston, Massachusetts, US
Posts: 22

I think that the men did what they did because it was a job that was available to them, and the environment around them that hated Jews along with the urge to obey authority caused them to go through with it. It was a mix of society’s opinions, peer pressure, and their own opinions that must have led them to take a part in the einsatzgruppen. While doing this, there was definitely a side of them that felt like what they were doing was morally wrong, but they didn’t stop. And it’s for this reason that the einsatzgruppen is still very much responsible for what happened, it is literally first degree murder. I also think that “the power of the situation was so strong that individuals lose the ability to make rational, humane decisions” is kind of incorrect, especially in this circumstance. They were given the option to not participate in killing the people and they would have been let off the hook for it, and yet they chose to stay. This makes them even more responsible for the situation, because they fully consented to doing it. The einsatzgruppen is guilty, there’s no denying it. In the Milgram experiment those who were participating as teachers tended to be influenced by the psychologists in the room, but the “teachers” weren’t really given the option to leave, so a pretty decent amount of the participants went all the way. The killing squads were permitted to leave, and look at how that ended up. I have no more to say.

Boston, Massachusetts, US
Posts: 14

Psychology of the Holocaust

These men I believe did what they did because of the situation they were put in along with what was going on around them. It was definitely a lot to go along with the crowd mentality. No one wanted to stand out or go against what would be considered the norm especially at a time like this. Hating Jews was the expectation so whether it was a true feeling it did not matter because when it came down to it they were given orders and they followed. They took part in the Einsatzgruppen because of a combination of authoritative influence and a follower mentality. Even if some of them viewed it as immoral or wrong they would not speak up and kept their head down and followed orders. I believed that their moral compass and rational decision making were both hindered by the power of the situation as stated with the overwhelming influence. Though this by no means excuses the actions or displaces blame. Blame still falls fully on those who committed these heinous acts. As we saw in the Milgram experiment though the teacher knew what he was doing was wrong he was almost glued to the chair and because of his orders he continued to shock the student. It ends up being an off putting combination or morality and taking orders and flying with the masses.
caramel washington
Boston, MA, US
Posts: 15

From what we discussed in class, and what we read, it seems like the Einsatzgruppen was a group of extremely mediocre people. They were motivated purely by self interest and group norms, so they only took a stand when they found it comfortable. For example, once one of them chose to step forward and remain off of the firing squad, others did the same. “Any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out….after some moments one man from the third company stepped forward….after he had taken Schimke under his protection, some other ten or twelve men stepped forward as well” (p 57). Initially, Hoffmann got mad at Shimke, but eventually Trapp took him under his protection and prevented him from facing real consequences. This shows a lack of self motivation among the Einsatzgruppen to do the right thing, because they only took this action when it was clear that they would not be doing it alone. These social norms played a huge role in the way Nazis interacted with each other, and although one would think moral outrage would overshine this, time and time again this was not the case.

Another reason for the actions of these people was the fact that they had not fully processed what they were getting into before they began. The Nazis used nationalism, patriotism, and their military prowess to convince people to serve, but they didn’t offer training or communicate the reality of what the work would be. People showed up to these villages, untrained and confused, and by the time they realized they would be committing mass murder, it was too late. “For many the reality of what they were about to do, and particularly that they themselves might be chosen for the firing squad, had probably not sunk in” (p 62). Even the person in charge, Major Wilhelm Trapp, was complicit in these shootings despite his clear opposition to them in principle.

Some Nazis made mild acts of resistance to the murders, or simply aided in less direct ways so that they could feel less directly responsible. “Still others spent as much time as possible searching the houses so as not to be present at the marketplace, where they feared being assigned to a firing squad” (p 63). Additionally, there was a lot of depersonalizing the mass murder, so it would feel less real. We saw this as well in the meeting where the Nazis planned what they would do to the Jews, refering to it as “evacuation” and using other pseudonyms to avoid confronting the reality of what they were about to do. In my opinion, there is no specific type of person that is destined to be a fascist, because millions of people were and are Nazis, and this removes the blame from them. However, there are strategies that the Nazis could and did exploit that would allow people to become more accepting of their own fascist actions, and depersonalizing the situation was one of them.

In the end, the Nazis had to discontinue the Einsatzgruppen shootings and switch to a far less direct method of killing, namely gas chambers. Although this method was morally just as objectionable, and perhaps more so because of how much more efficient it was, there were far less protests from those doing the killings. This is likely because they were not staring their victims in the eye, they were not watching the life drain out of them, they were simply flicking a switch and collecting the bodies after a few minutes. The way people can be more complicit in indirect murder also ties in to the Milgram experiments, where when people were unable to see the person they were torturing, they were more likely to continue.

Boston, MA, US
Posts: 22

Jozefow, the Einsatzgruppen, and the Psychology of the Holocaust

I believe that these men committed these atrocities because of human’s subjugation to obedience. While these men were given the opportunity to step away and remove themselves from the firing squads, the majority of the men may have felt compelled to take part in the action by the direct orders from the nazi leadership and the persistant pushing of Captain Wolauf. Some of the men had the opportunity and the clarity to understand what they were doing was wrong so they made the decision to excuse themselves when they learned the true horror of the atrocities they were committing. Even as their fellow soldiers decided to follow the orders and slaughter an entire village of innocent people, these men were able to keep hold of their morals and their sanity and keep themselves from taking part in an action that all the men understood was wrong and immoral. The remainder of the men simply lacked the initiative to overcome the persistent orders of higher ups to form their own opinions and course of action. While a few of the men in the unit may have been psychotic and ultimately believed the orders they were given were just and right and the actions that they carried out were for the good of society and needed to be done to cleanse out the “impure” in society, the majority of the men were normal individuals that were swept up in the ideology and orders of the nazi, which lead to them become subservient individuals, that lacked the clarity and the ability to stand up for themselves. Even Though the soldiers faced almost no repercussions for deciding to stand up for themselves and excuse themselves from the killing, many of them simply did not. Some were even able to excuse themselves after the killing started and were reassigned to other non-killing posts, other than the few poor soldiers that missed the opportunity at the beginning of the carnage and were unable to be reassigned after they asked Captain Wolauf. The Nazi leadership didn’t force these guards to kill these innocent people, rather the individuals themselves lost “themselves” in the world and the ideology itself, leading to them carrying out orders that otherwise would have disgusted and even repulsed them if they had done them back home. I personally believe Major Tripp's actions as remorseful. While the ordinary soldier was given the option to back out of the killing group by Major Tripp, I am unsure if he could have stopped the executions himself without the Nazi leadership replacing him or even killing him. With possibly no good options given to the major, he decided to try and save as many men from the horrors of the orders as possible. While his actions may not be seen as heroic, as thousands of men, women and children were still killed and brutally executed, he tried to make the situation a little bit better for the men that were drafted into the army and could not stomach killing individuals. He tried to save the conscious of his unit, but he was too late to save them as their morality and ability to decide for themselves had already been destroyed and killed by the nazi government and leadership. I believe that the special nazi killing groups turned out to be extremely problematic for the nazis, as troops began to fight back against the orders. As seen in the obedience experiment, the “teacher” eventually fought back against the administrator and refused to continue the experiment. Even after the man supposedly killed the “learner”, he eventually fought back against the administrator and began to be disgusted by both of their actions. The nazis may have faced a similar problem, as soldiers that initially were okay with killing the normal individuals, would maybe have become disgusted by their actions and refused to continue killing individuals that they came face to face to them. In this one execution zone, the nazi leadership already saw individuals refuse to take part in the executions after they took place. As time passed, more individuals may have begun to resist the orders and try to get out of the killing groups, slowing down the operation and effectiveness of the killing group.

In studying this one killing, I believe that the power of the situation does overcome an individual's ability to decide. While some individuals may have a strong moral complex that they are able to keep them center and keep them from carrying out brutal and bloody orders, the majority of people lack this moral compass, as seen in the experiment as over 60% of people continued the experiment even passed 400 watts. While this finding may lessen the horrible nature of their crimes, as they are not bloody psychopaths that were focused and propelled into killing every jew, slav and individual that they believe were below them and harming society, but rather morally weak individuals that were poisoned by facism and the horrific horrors of their commanders, it does not mean they are somewhat less responsible. They still killed innocent men, women, children and destroyed entire villages simply because they couldn’t lack the moral courage to understand what they were doing was wrong and had the courage to fight back. They were given an opportunity to step back and excuse themselves and the majority of individuals still carried out the massacre. In the end, these men failed to hold onto the morality that society tries to instill into people, and slaughtered innocent people simply because they were told too.

Boston, Massachusetts, US
Posts: 22

When the government of Germany began to endorse the belief that Jewish people were the root cause of any and all dilemmas, the mentality was inevitably going to be absorbed by many, and the men at Jozefow were no exception. Looking at this situation, along with Stanley Milgram’s infamous 1960s obedience experiment, it is evident that humans are particularly vulnerable to fall prey to authority, so much that they can make extremely questionable or immoral decisions when pressured. For these men, as soldiers, obeying their orders and catering to their “superiors” was exactly what they were conditioned to do, regardless of the fact that German nationalism was practically synonymous with hatred and violence. In an environment with such a harsh emphasis on Jewish persecution, the pressure to be an active participant in the so-called "cleansing" was deeply embedded, and those who opted to drop out of the massacre were met with condemnation from their peers.

But with all of this being said, the idea that the actions of the soldiers posted at Jozefow are excused because they were a product of some unavoidable “human nature” mentality is, in my opinion, complete BS. Of course, the pressures and the illusionment of working for a “higher power” can very heavily affect a person’s judgment, as Milgram’s experiment has shown, but to claim that as some kind of rationalization for these men to have remained engaged or complacent in the mass murder of thousands of Jews just isn’t plausible. It’s all the more frustrating when Browning’s text clearly states a multitude of times that there were no actual repercussions for refusing to follow orders. Everyday, these men inflicted pain and suffering on men, women, and even children, their primary concerns being about whether their gunshots would produce blood splatter. Absolutely nothing could serve as justification for such cruelty.

One aspect of the reading that really stood out to me was the behavior of Major Wilhelm Tripp, who was observed by multiple soldiers to have been sobbing erratically over the mass shooting of Jews in Jozefow, but still managed to justify the event by exclaiming that it was an order sent from “higher authority.” Tripp’s distraught over the situation exemplifies how power and the idea of “superiority” can intertwine with judgment, as it’s clear that his emotions were very much intact. But it does not take away from the fact that his behavior, regardless of outside influence, was nobody else’s but his own. He even had the unique experience of not only facing the victims who were murdered, but also giving out the orders for his men to do so systematically.

I think that recounting moments in history where we allowed authority to deeply influence our judgment should now serve as cautionary tales for the future. History can tell us a lot about human nature and how humans tend to react in certain distressing situations, and now, in the age of the twenty-first century, we should be able to identify how higher power corrupts our thoughts and decisions.

Boston, MA, US
Posts: 21

The men did what they did because they felt an obligation to follow direct orders from their superiors. On the surface, it seems like the only reason for participating in the killing was because they were fearful of disobeying authorities and the only reason for not participating was because the act was toro harsh, but I don’t think it can be this simple. We will (probably) never know every single reason why the police did/didn’t do, but limiting it to these two viewpoints seems way too restricted, however, the accounts and interviews that Browning records are a really great peek into the psyche of the police who carried out these mass killings. The “don’t want to disobey direct orders” excuse seemingly falls apart when you consider the lack of repercussions that police officers who opted out faced. I find it so interesting that these officers who returned to the barracks faced no consequences in the aftermath of the killings (or at least no consequences that are stated). It genuinely makes me wonder why more officers didn’t opt out. Maybe it was because they feared there would be hidden consequences or they thought that Trapp had been lying about his leniency, but even still I find it shocking that more officers didn’t opt out, making me wonder what the true reasoning behind participating in the killings was. For many, opting out would not be chosen until after witnessing the true horrors (either seeing or actively killing a Jew).

I think Major Trapp’s actions deserve a whole separate paragraph because I genuinely can;t understand this man’s thought process. I was surprised to read that Major Trapp himself did not agree with the commands that he was given and offered his troops the opportunity to opt out, but as I kept reading I got very confused and honestly very annoyed. It seems highly hypocritical of Trapp to be able to say that he disagrees with the commands he receives from the higher ups, sulk in town while saying that he doesn’t like the orders, and then continue to carry out this mass killing, allowing others to do his dirty work and cycling in more officers to speed up the process. For Trapp, his actions are infuriating because on the surface he says that he disagrees with the orders, but he has the power to carry out his orders without needing to take the blame. Trapp has the power to remain ignorant to the actions that are being carried out underneath his rule. He does not have to face these horrifying images because he never goes to the forest himself to witness the executions. This ignorance allows Trapp to disassociate himself from the violence underneath him because he believes he is guilt free because of his offer to opt out. Disagreement or not, allowing and carrying out orders as such shows physical agreement and submission to the orders that he receives, and this denial does not cancel out his crimes.

When looking at Browning’s article, as well as Milgrim’s research, the question of importance comes into play. Why should we care? Though I do think that Browning’s article gives a very important perspective to the psychology of the officers under Nazi command, I don’t think that this necessarily means they deserve a single ounce of sympathy. This phenomena on how humans behave in the presence of power is an important behavior to understand the role of power in human relationships, but it does not in any way lessen the nature of their crimes. Their behaviors and failure to disobey direct orders highlights the lack of human empathy in the presence of power. Their reluctance shows that we all naturally have some sort of empathy but their participation even though they feel great reluctance shows human selfishness to put themselves over other lives. The selfishness to preserve oneself and willingness to do anything to save yourself. Even though they were given the option to leave, many did not take the offer until already participating in the mass violence, and I believe this behavior does not deserve sympathy. In many ways, I think that all of the perpetrators are guilty in their own way. Neither the commander nor the officer is more or less guilty, but they are guilty in separate ways. The officers are guilty by carrying out the actions and the commanders are guilty by supervising such actions.

Boston, MA, US
Posts: 20

For me, Christopher Browning's book, Ordinary Men, is first and foremost about the responsibility that humans should have to themselves, and each other, to be kind and moral, but also raises questions about the banality of evil. Although the book itself does not attempt to answer the question, the description of the Jozefow massacre in 1942, where German soldiers rounded up and murdered around 1,800 Jewish people, inevitably questions how seemingly ordinary people were alright with murdering people, simply because they were ordered to.

I do not believe that the men of the Einsatzgruppen were any different from us. To believe so is to argue that they are exceptions, that the people who carry out genocides are rarities, and in doing that, we abandon all responsibility that we have, both to the victims and to ourselves, to never let this happen again. Even Trapp does only the bare minimum, allowing men to opt out. The soldiers are trained to follow orders, but even that training should leave room for self-reflection— this raises the possibility of selfishness or sheep mentality, both of which leave them as individuals to blame for the massacres.

Even the men who opted out are morally responsible to a certain extent. They do little or nothing to prevent further murders, and instead simply exempt themselves from the actual murders. Their participation in the Einsatzgruppen, and by extension the Nazi party, sghows that it is not the ideology which they take issue with, but instead the visceral image of the mass murder of women, the elderly, and children. We see this same thing in the movie we watched about the Wannsee Conference, where people do object, but only to the idea of murder, not to the motives behind it.

All of us in society are trained to follow authority, and it is rather disturbing how far we are willing to follow orders. Watching the recording of the Milgram experiment, Obedience, shows the true extent of this, where the teacher continues with the experiment, despite the implication that in the room, the person is dead. Despite the similar lack of consequences, and the fact that they had been paid when they walked into the door, the people in the experiment did not leave, which shows how this likely continued on a larger scale. The question now is more about how to prevent similar events in the future, as that is the only part we can deal with.

In the book, it is shown that people can walk away, despite the results of the experiment. One would think that the death squads might have demonstrated similar results to when there were two “teachers”, where the percentage of people who reached the highest shock level was lower. However, this is changed by the fact that the death squads were structured in a way that there were many authorities, though with less power. The pressure of these people in positions of authority is so great that although these people had the option to leave, the majority of them chose not to.

Reading about the visceral nature of their choice, it seems easy to make the decision— however, the screams in the experiment were also visceral, and it seems likely that fighting in general would also desensitize the soldiers to the violence of the massacre. Their responsibility for the murders needs to be restated.

The Nazi authorities eventually decided to shift to the method of killing through gas chambers, as even the few men who decided that they no longer wanted to participate were too many losses for them to accept, of course. This method of killing was even more impersonal and distanced, resulting in fewer protests. It would also be easier to destroy the bodies, and so as such, that was the method that they chose.

I believe that although we cannot forgive, and certainly not absolve the men in the death squads of the responsibility for so many deaths, we should be able to understand them in order to better prepare ourselves for the pitfalls of our own psychology. The statement that "the power of the situation was so strong that individuals lose the ability to make rational, humane decisions” is understandable, but does not lessen their responsibility. The fact that the people are more likely to make the wrong decision does not make the decision less wrong or make them less responsible. The difference between humanity and most other species on this planet is our ability to take on moral responsibility. We should know better, and have the responsibility to make the better choice, as well as to take responsibility for our decisions.

Boston, Massachusetts, US
Posts: 25

Jozefow, the Einsatzgruppen, and the Psychology of the Holocaust

Simply put, I believe these men, and most Nazi soldiers, did what they did because they were told to do so. Perhaps some of them were wildly anti-Semitic, had no concept of the value of another human life, or even a combination of both, but in the end I find it hard to believe that any of the men in the companies sent to Jozefow massacred the people of the town because they felt like it. However, what complicates this question in the case of the Jozefow massacre is the fact that they were given the option to not actively participate in the shooting with no repercussions. This being the case, it is completely beyond comprehension to me why any of them would choose to participate. Like Browning described in his book, once one man came forward when they initially offered, about a dozen more felt comfortable to do so, and the rest thought they could do it. Then later on as the killings were taking place a number of men backed out and many were visibly upset and disturbed, however there were those who still chose to carry on. I honestly do not know why more of the men did not opt out because, as far as we can tell as readers, there were no repercussions. Maybe there was some peer pressure or some shame they felt around choosing not to participate in mass murder but truthfully I cannot see any logic in the decision to follow orders. This could be an example of where the concept of the “fascist personality type” explanation was used to cover up the fact that these men willingly chose to murder other people under the guise of it “just being the way they are”, however I think that this personality type notion was just to ease the consciousness of so many active participants and bystanders in the atrocities that took place.

The mindset around “the power of the situation was so strong that individuals lose the ability to make rational, humane decisions” does have some validity because, quite frankly, Nazi authority was terrifying, but at the end of the day, I cannot imagine any situation under any circumstances that I would ever agree to harm someone else, much less massacre close to more than 1,000 people. The majority of instances where killing squads were appointed and forced to murder people were just that: force. It does not make what they did understandable or forgivable in any world, but it does give some insight as to what their thought process might have been. However, in the Jozefow massacre, all the men that participated in the shooting and continued to do so made a conscious choice to do so even with the option of leaving.

Conversely with the Einsatzgruppen, I can believe many of the men were ruled by fear and “Groupthink”, like seen in the Milgram experiments. There are times where authority and higher power make us think that we are being forced and have absolutely no choices, when in reality there is almost always a choice. The man we saw in the Milgrim experiments was upset by the fact that he was hurting someone else (even though he was not in reality), and his justification for continuing to participate was that he was forced to. As viewers, we saw that the man could have easily left, however he was so convinced that he had to stay and after it was all over we could see the anger and confusion he felt when asked why he didn’t leave because, in the moment, he really, really felt like he had no choice. Many of the accounts we heard from members of the einsatzgruppen were very similar. Many were terrified of being killed themselves if they did not comply, said that they were forced against their will, or said that they were simply following orders. The same was seen with Major Trapp. Many saw him crying, barely being able to give orders, and otherwise seeing in every way to be ordering the roundup and massacre of Jews in Jozefow entirely against his will. Yet he gave them anyhow. He gave his soldiers the option to not participate which is an incredibly rare instance as far as I am aware, but he still chose to give the orders and never stopped it from happening. In the case of both Major Trapp and the einsatzgruppen, there was pressure from above but I really do think that they were simply controlled by fear and the powerful influence of the Nazi regime made them believe that the had to so what they were told unconditionally when this was not necessarily the case. The Nazi authorities were brutal, however I believe there is always a choice. Many of the men could have chosen death over massacring others. There are some who could have probably refused to comply and still have gotten away with their lives however fear and this notion of “groupthink” have profound psychological impacts, so much so that in the moment the einsatzgruppen, and anyone else who feels pressure from any kind of authority, is absolutely convinced that they literally have no other choice but to do what they are told.

But I do want to echo the sentiment of the former facing student: so what? The Nazi soliders still massacred innocent people and were part of an organization that was directly responsible for millions upon millions of stolen lives. It does not matter that they may have been a “fascist personality type” or if they felt like they were forced to do it against their will because at the end of the day they were still murdering people and detroying entire populations. Whether or not they wanted to do what they were doing is essentially irrelevant and sympathizing with the perpetrators of a horrific genocide is a grave disrespect to those who lost their lives at the hands of the Nazi regime.

Boston, MA, US
Posts: 22

It is important to understand where people that commit atrocious acts like this come from. However, in no way does it excuse anything that they did. They have the ability to control their own actions. And especially when it comes to something as serious as killing people, they can absolutely decide for themselves what is right.

Although groupthink is a real argument and is something that is seen in a variety of situations, everyone ultimately has the power to stand up and say no if they do not want to do something, especially when that thing goes against common human decency and morals.

The perpetrators are still responsible in every way, but the blame should also fall upon those who gave the orders, but did not directly commit the crime. The thought processes of the officers are important to understand because it portrays how the Nazi leaders manipulated everyone to acheive their goal. In this way, these officers are affected by their abuse as well, though not nearly to the extent that Holocaust victims were.

However, it is clear that many of these people are having an internal battle with themselves. They are all trying to justify it to themselves in their own warped ways. Whether it be saying that some of these Jews have done bad things, or that they played a part in the downfall of Germany, the officers make countless excuses for what they are about to do. They ultimately know that what they are doing is wrong, but will do anything to make themselves feel better.

Someone that I found quite interesting in the reading was Wilhelm Trapp. He is multidimensional and the battle that he faces against himself is clear to see. Like many of the other officers, he comes up with any possible reason to justify the murders of these people. It is also quite an interesting decision when he tells his subordinates that they can exclude themselves from one of the activities if they feel that is best. It makes him an even more complicated character because it shows that he has sympathy, yet continues to do this.

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